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Chapter 25: Christian Love as the Principle of Christian Life

Question H: In what senses can Christian love be called “grace”?

1. Charity can be called “grace” in two senses. These are designated by some uses of the terms “sanctifying grace” and “actual grace.”

2. “Sanctifying grace” refers to that in Christians by which they are transformed into adopted children of God. The share in divine life which God offers created persons is a real regeneration, a second birth. Christians possess a new life which is their own (see Rom 6.4); they are new creatures (see 2 Cor 5.17), new men and women re-created in justice, holiness, and truth (see Eph 4.24). This new life is “grace” because it is a divine gift, “sanctifying” because it really transforms a person with the holiness of divine life.

3. As was explained in chapter twenty-four, the love of God by which Christians love him must also be understood as a disposition which is their own and really transforms them. The Church has not taught, and theologians do not agree, whether this love and sanctifying grace are in the Christian one and the same reality or two realities.14 Thus one is free to call charity “sanctifying grace.” Furthermore, at least for the purposes of moral theology, no distinction is needed between charity and sanctifying grace. Rather, the supposition here is that, insofar as the gift of divine life (sanctifying grace) bestowed on the Christian is distinct from the uncreated gift (the Holy Spirit), it can be identified with that love of God which “has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5.5).

4. The expression “actual grace” is used in various contexts with diverse references. The common element lies in the fact that the various realities referred to move people to act in ways which positively contribute to God’s redemptive work.

5. Thus, “actual grace” can refer to God’s causality, insofar as God brings sinners to conversion and causes the good deeds of saints. It can refer specifically to the work of the Holy Spirit in Christians, helping them in their weakness and nourishing their holiness. Sometimes “grace,” in the sense of “actual grace,” refers to created entities conducive to anyone’s salvation or the good of the Church. A pious thought, a chance encounter, or even a difficulty which conduces to holiness is called a “grace.”

6. Since charity impels one to deeds of love (see 2 Cor 5.14; 1 Jn 3.18), it is a dynamic principle of Christian life in the ways explained in this chapter. Thus, it also can be called “actual grace.” If charity is considered in this way, it is not necessary to posit still other supernatural principles in the soul underlying the acts by which Christians living in God’s love grow in holiness and progress toward salvation. This avoids the insoluble puzzles which arise from thinking of actual grace as a mysterious, created force which somehow moves persons to make their free choices.

7. There is an underlying principle of unity which explains why the word “grace” is used with several different meanings. In Christian language, “grace” always refers to God’s gifts, but not all God’s gifts are called “grace.” Rather, the word’s use is restricted to God’s gifts insofar as they are related to his personal revelation and contribute to our salvation.15

8. In summary, fallen men and women cannot hear and accept God’s word unless he first causes them to be open to it, sends someone to communicate it, and draws them to conversion. These gifts of God’s mercy and his causing of them are called “actual grace.” When the sinner is prepared to accept God’s self-communication, his love is poured forth in the heart by the Holy Spirit. This love not only overcomes sin but makes the person who accepts it with faith an adopted child of God. As a principle of sharing in God’s own holiness, it is called “sanctifying grace.” The new life of the adopted child of God is an appropriate response to his gift. Yet this response, while it is the Christian’s own action, also is God’s gift: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2.10). Hence, every good act of Christian life, the charity which impels to it, and God’s causing of it also can be called “actual grace.” United with Jesus’ sacrifice, Christians’ holy lives merit the re-creative act by which God will complete his work of salvation. This ultimate achievement of God’s love will bring about the fulfillment of everything in Jesus. This divine act and the perfection each Christian hopes to receive in it can be called “beatifying grace.”

God’s causality as a principle of conversion and Christian life is the primary reality called “actual grace.”16 The Church firmly, constantly, and definitively teaches that no one becomes an adopted child of God, no one lives up to this status, and no one reaches heaven except by the work of God. This work of God, an utterly free gift on his part, brings about in us everything which heals sin and contributes to sanctity unto eternal life (see DS 1525–26/797–98, 1541/806, 1544/808, 1546/809, 1551–53/811–13, 1568/828, 1572/832). At the same time, God’s work in us in no way eliminates our own free choice; we must cooperate with God’s grace (see DS 1525/797, 1528–29/799, 1541/806, 1554/814).

The problem raised by this teaching is: If God does it all, how can we freely and responsibly do anything? If we really make a difference, how can one suppose that the whole process and outcome of our redemption and sanctification are from first to last God’s work?

The seeming paradox is contained in Scripture itself. We are God’s handiwork with a life prepared for us to live (see Eph 2.10). Only those drawn by the Father come to Jesus (see Jn 6.44). On the other hand, there are constant exhortations, including ones urging and insisting that grace be used well (see Rom 2.4–11; 2 Cor 6.1). Christians are to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2.12), which would make no sense if they could not do anything about it. Clearly, everything is God’s work and something also is ours.

Neither set of texts can be taken in isolation, nor should complex ideas be split up (see S.t., 1–2, q. 109, aa. 2, 5–6, 9–10; q. 111, a. 2; q. 113, a. 3). For example: “He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15.5). The first two phrases make it clear that we do something, indeed, a great deal, if we live in Jesus; the last phrase by itself might be taken to mean the opposite. Paul says: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me” (1 Cor 15.10). In these two sentences, the paradox appears twice.

In popular Catholic thought and piety, the difficulty often is clouded over and the truth of the gospel and the Church’s teaching greatly obscured by the supposition that God does a good deal and we do the rest. The relationship is imagined to be like any ordinary cooperation. This sense often is given to the saying: Work as if everything depended on yourself; pray as if everything depended on God. The assumption is that in fact what depends on us does not depend on God. This is false, and to suppose it is true is to dishonor God, to reduce his mysterious reality, and to claim for oneself what is not one’s own—namely, exclusive credit for what one does by one’s own free choices.

At least two things lead people to segregate divine from human action. First, to the extent that “grace” means divine causality, one is confronted with the mystery of the compatibility between God’s causing all creatures and created persons making created free choices. This mystery is insoluble, for we do not know what God is in himself and do not know what it is for him to cause. “Cause” is used in a unique sense of him, and so we have no basis for the troublesome supposition that if God causes a choice it cannot be free. God creates, gives reality to, human persons making free choices (see S.t., 1, q. 19, a. 8; 1–2, q. 9, a. 6). We do not know how he does it, but neither do we know how he creates raindrops falling on our heads. This case is an instance of a general problem discussed in chapter two, appendix three.

Another factor which leads people to divide divine and human acts is that it often is supposed that actual grace is a created entity other than human acts themselves—not an obvious entity such as a mother, a retreat, or a chance encounter, but a mysterious psychic or spiritual entity, like an unconscious impulse. Now if actual grace were this, if it helped us by unconscious pushes and tugs, it would be incompatible with human free choice. Then it would be true that the more such impulses did, the less we did, and the more we did, the less they did.

Fortunately, nothing in Scripture or Catholic teaching requires us to believe in spiritual pushes and tugs. Therefore, while grace remains mysterious, we can be confident that there is nothing absurd in the idea that God’s grace bestows our whole Christian life on us—everything we are and do and have, absolutely everything—and that a very important part of what God bestows is a human nature, human abilities, human freedom, human choices, human acts, human flourishing, and the sublime gift of our personal share in his own divine life which transforms our humanity and everything which belongs to it into the fulfillment of an adopted child of God. Therefore, we ought to pray because everything depends on God; we ought to work because our work is an important part of God’s good gift to us.

14. See S. Gonzalez, S.J., De gratia, in Sacrae Theologiae Summa, ed. 4, vol. 3 (Madrid: B.A.C., 1961), 603 (tr. III, a. 196).

15. See Gerhard Trenkler, “Grace,” in Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology, 340–44; E. M. Burke, “Grace,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 6:658–72.

16. Concerning actual grace: Michael Schmaus, Dogma, vol. 6, Justification and the Last Things (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1977), 9–41; Henri Rondet, S.J., The Grace of Christ: A Brief History of the Theology of Grace (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1967), 313–64. While the answer to this question differs from St. Thomas by denying the distinction he makes between sanctifying grace and charity, as well as in other ways, the present view agrees with him in considering God’s own causality, not something created, as the central reality of actual grace: St., 1–2, q. 111, a. 2. For a textual analysis of St. Thomas’ theology of grace, which reveals its complexity and stages of development, and clearly differentiates it from subsequent competing theological developments: Bernard J. F. Lonergan, S.J., Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. J. Patout Burns (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 21–40 and 139–45. A treatment of actual grace in some ways like mine, yet one with which I cannot wholly agree: Charles R. Meyer, A Contemporary Theology of Grace (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1971), 151–81.